Monday, 12 July 2010

How I came to be in England - Part 48


‘You’ve lost weight,’ my old school friend said. Her eyes were sharp under newly blow-dried short hair. We were standing in front of the hall mirror of my grandmother’s house in Tampere. She was shorter than me and had to stand on tiptoe to zip up the bodice part of my white silk tulle wedding gown. I was hot, even though I had nothing but my knickers on underneath the dress. The stagnant air held specks of dust afloat in the old, wooden house. I wondered if I could ask someone to open a window.
The temperatures in Finland had suddenly soared the day before the English party arrived in Helsinki. At the airport the Englishman’s mother had carried her Mac on her arm and said, ‘Is it always this warm here in Finland?’ I smiled and said the summer weather was very much the same as in England – it could be cold and rainy or hot and sunny.
When my eyes settled on the Englishman at the airport I’d felt exactly the same as I did when I came to meet him that first time three years before. We kissed and hugged as long as we could in front of everybody without embarrassment.
‘I love you more than ever,’ the Englishman whispered into my ear. His best friend came to hug me too and I smelled beer on his breath. The Englishman’s parents looked out of place in Helsinki. I directed the group onto the Finnair bus and when at last all the luggage was in, including the two hatboxes the Englishman’s mother and auntie had carried as hand luggage, the Englishman nodded to a set of two seats at the back of the bus. We sat next to each other holding hands and I wondered if I should mention Samantha. I looked into the Englishman’s eyes and he smiled at me. ‘God, I’ve missed you,’ he said.
‘Me too,’ I said.
Later in his hotel room, where we’d escaped together, the Englishman – my husband - took me into his arms. But I pulled away and looked down at my hands.
‘What?’ he said and bent down to see my face.
‘I went out with Samantha a few weeks ago,’ I said.
The Englishman slumped onto the bed. He ran his fingers through his thick black hair and sighed. It was dark in the room; brown curtains had been pulled across a wide window. ‘Come here,’ he said and patted the silky bedspread.
I crossed my hands over my chest. How easy it would have been to just give into him. To sit next to him and be loved. But I had to know what really had gone on between him and that girl. ‘No,’ I said and went to stand by the window.
There was a loud knock on the door. ‘What are you two doing?’ somebody shouted from the other side. The Englishman gave me a quick glance, raising his eyebrows. I nodded and he went to open the door. The Englishman’s best friend and my best friend burst through the door, arm in arm.
‘This is strickly veerbooteen,’ the Englishman’s friend, our best man, said. He was wiggling his finger at the Englishman. My friend was giggling. He turned to her and said, isn’t that what you say in Finnish? He was drunk, slurring his words. ‘You can’t be doing it – you’re not even married yet.’ He winked at the Englishman. He’d been under strict instructions not to breathe a word of our registry office wedding to anyone.
My friend stopped giggling when she saw my face, ‘Förbjuden’, she said, ‘and it’s Swedish, not Finnish,’ She loosened her arm from the best man’s grip. ‘I told you.’
‘What’s up?’ she said coming over to me. My friend was dressed in cotton trousers and a short-sleeved top. Her long arms were tanned and she seemed even taller than usual. I looked into her eyes – she’d had a drink too. I touched her arm and said in Swedish, ‘It’s OK, we just need to talk for a bit.’
My friend nodded, turned on her heels and took hold of the best man again, ‘Come along you Englishman, there are beers to be drunk.’
When my Englishman shut the door behind our friends, he said, ‘They seem to be getting on very well.’
‘Yes,’ I turned my face away from him. I need to stay firm, not to give in to the false lull of happiness. Not now I’d finally dared to talk to him about the ‘accident’. I sat on the bed. The dark, dusty heat in the room was oppressive. ‘I need to know,’ I said quietly.
‘OK,’ the Englishman sat next to me on the bed. I looked at his face. His eyes were serious and round. He opened his mouth to say something but then seemed to change his mind.
‘Why did she come to our wedding?’
The Englishman stood up and went to the window. His hands were hanging either side of him, ‘I don’t know. She must have heard the rumour about our quickie wedding,’ the Englishman turned around and gave me a boyish grin, then growing serious again, continued, ‘you know what the Navy’s like…I couldn’t believe it when I saw her outside the Registry Office.’
‘She said she’d gone out with your mate when you were at Dartmouth.’
‘Did she? I don’t know.’ The Englishman came over and kneeled in front of me. His eyes were so wide and his face so sad I knew I’d forgive him anything at all. ‘Darling, you’ve got to believe me when I tell you it didn’t mean anything. I was drunk, she was drunk. If I could re-write history, I’d give anything for…’ The Englishman buried his head in my lap. I stroked his short black hair. There were curly strands growing on the back of his neck. I pulled his face up and kissed him. I felt the harsh stubble on my cheek. ‘I love you, Englishman,’ I said.
After I’d left for Tampere, two hours north of Helsinki, the English party spent a few days sightseeing in Helsinki. My sister had organised a trip out to the archipelago, as well as the train tickets for all of them later on in the week to Tampere. The Englishman had kissed me long and hard at the station. ‘I can’t wait to be married to you again,’ he whispered in my year and grinned.

In the evenings in Tampere there was a slight sea breeze coming from the two vast lakes bordering the city, but during the day the sun burned my shoulders as I’d sat in the garden of my grandmother’s house. I hadn’t visited the place of my birth in years; the memories of my childhood here flooded back and I had to keep myself in check not to give into a maudlin sense of loss. For not only was I marrying, I was leaving my home for good this time. The old Finlayson cotton factory; the sombre stone statues guarding the Hämeensilta bridge; the people, whose faces seemed more familiar to me than those in England, or even Helsinki, all pointed a finger at me and asked, ‘Why are you leaving your homeland?’ I walked around the old Stockmann’s department store in the centre of town, where as a child I’d spent my pocket money on toys and little packets of chewing gum with cards of ice-hockey players in them, and where for the first time I’d been allowed to do a half an hour Christmas shop on my own at the age of ten. My grandmother’s dishes of semolina pudding, blueberry pie and dill meatballs took me back to my childhood as did the burgers my sister and I had in the old Siilinkari café opposite Stockmann’s.
The three days I spent in my grandmother’s house also brought me close to revealing what had happened in England fours weeks previously. But each time I started to tell to my mother or sister about the English registry office wedding, I drew back and decided it would be better for them not to know. The padre in England had promised the service would be no different, and when I’d telephoned the pastor from England on that frantic day of arrangements in May, he too had assured me that no-one would notice the difference between an actual ceremony and a blessing.

‘Have you been starving yourself or what?’ my friend now said and tutted. She was biting her bottom lip and had her hands crossed over her chest.
I looked at myself in the mirror. My friend was right; the top was a little loose, ‘Sorry, I hadn’t noticed.’
After assessing my image in the mirror with her head cocked slightly to one side, she got a needle and a thread out and started sewing an extra seam to tighten the fabric around my body. The bodice fell off my shoulders and I felt bare in my nakedness. My friend disappeared with the dress. She’d always been the fashion-conscious one of the group of us five girls. She’d travelled to London after school finished and was now working as a pattern cutter for a Finnish fashion house. I put my hands across my breasts and reached for a t-shirt I’d been wearing before.
My mother was also standing behind me watching the final fitting of the dress. She and my grandmother had been ready for ages. My grandmother in her all leopard patterned outfit; my mother in pale blue with a straw-coloured wide brimmed hat with a few matching silk flowers pinned to it. We’d bought her outfit in Helsinki, during the week I’d stayed with my university friend before the Englishmen’s arrival. I smiled at my mother through the mirror and noticed she had tears in her eyes. I remembered then the picture of her and my father on their wedding day displayed on the bookshelf in my grandmother’s living room. She too had worn a simple white dress and a long veil. The black and white photograph of her was the most beautiful I’d ever seen of a bride. I wondered if on the day she’d been full of hope or whether she’d already then feared that the marriage wouldn’t last. Did she too have doubts? I shrugged off any such thoughts and turned my eyes back to my own image. My friend had finished with her sewing and with the needle and threat between her teeth, she asked me to once again step inside the bodice. ‘There!’ she said triumphantly as she zipped up the gown. Carefully, she arranged the veil on my head and pulled it down over my face.
There was a gasp from the small group of women behind me. My mother and grandmother had been joined by my sister, wearing a stylish black and blue patterned dress and matching hat, as well as by my Polish aunt who was wearing bright red suit and high-heeled red shoes. ‘Oh la, la!’ she said and came closer to me. She stretched her arms as if to squeeze me, but stopped just in time, ‘Ah, I cannot touch you, but you look beautiful!’
‘What time is it?’ I spoke into a silence where all the women were staring at me, as if in a trance, through the mirror.
‘Goodness,’ my mother said and rushed to the kitchen window, ‘the taxis are here already!’
My grandmother and my sister went off in the first car with my friend, all air kissing me in turn as they disappeared out of the door. My sister looked as nervous as I should have been. She took my hands into hers and said, ‘See you after the ceremony!’ I guess for her the most difficult part was to come. She’d arranged everything concerning the wedding reception, stuff I didn’t even know to think about.
‘Are you ready to go?’ my mother said. I could see she was fighting tears. I nodded and we started to gather my veil up into my arms. Suddenly I stopped. ‘I think I need the loo,’ I said.
‘What?’ my mother turned sharply at the door.
For a moment we all stood still in the hall, wondering what to do.
‘You can’t wait?’ my mother asked.
I felt like laughing out loud, ‘Of course not – what if….?’
‘No worry,’ my Polish auntie said. She opened the door to the little downstairs cloakroom and took hold of my veil. ‘You sit, we hold, and how do you say, what do you call it…you…?’
I struggled to fit myself from underneath the layers of fine tulle fabric onto the toilet seat. But we couldn’t shut the door. ‘OK, now,’ my mother said and smiled. We’d all been giggling and now grew quiet.
But it was no good. After a few minutes, I said, ‘I can’t go when you’re watching.’
‘Oh,’ my mother looked at her watch. She lifted her eyes to her Polish friend, whose face suddenly brightened up, ‘We close door so, and we go here.’
The two women arranged my veil and the overflowing fabric of my dress so that the door could be left just a little ajar and still holding onto my veil, moved themselves behind the door to the loo. And finally I could let go.
In the taxi we giggled like school girls. My Polish aunt was sitting in the front seat, her hat touching the roof of the car as she turned her head back and forth.
‘That’ll be the one thing you remember about this day,’ my mother said and squeezed my hand. ‘Just like the time when you were a little girl and when Father Christmas came you were on the loo, nearly missing the whole visit!’
I laughed, ‘But it was only my father dressed up as Father Christmas!’
My mother looked down at her hands. Her smile waned and we fell silent in the back seat.
The car pulled into the bridge over Tammerkoski. I saw the fast flowing water of the steep rapid. I remembered how as a child I’d been afraid I’d fall into the foam created by the water and be lost forever in the strong current. We drove slowly through the edge of Tampere centre, onto Satakunnankatu, and turned up the hill towards the Cathedral. My mother squeezed my hand and I realised she thought I was nervous. She still didn’t know that I was already married. I smiled at her and pulled the veil over my face while I waited for the others to get out of the car.
My uncle’s smiling face was waiting for me on the steps of the church. He was a tall, slim man with slightly thinning, fair hair. I hadn’t seen him for years and it seemed strange that it was not my father who was waiting for me. I swallowed the tears and nodded to him.
‘Well, this is an honour indeed,’ he said and offered me his arm. Slowly we made our way up the steps. At the doorway I had to stand still for a moment to adjust my eyes to the darkness of the church. The organ started playing Mendelssohn’s wedding march. As we began the long walk down the aisle, I could see the Englishman, looking smart in his dark navy suit, start towards me from the top of the aisle. When he moved forward, his mother too got up and took hold of his sleeve. The Englishman whispered something into her ear. I suppressed a giggle; I guessed no-one had told her that in Finland the bride and groom meet in the middle of the aisle, where the bride is handed over. She must have thought he was about to make a run for it.

When we walked out of the church, now properly man and wife in the eyes of God as well as law, the Englishman whispered into my ear, ‘You look stunning.’

My father stood alone, a little to the side of the path leading up to the church. As we stepped out into the bright sunshine I saw him right away and found that his presence didn’t surprise me in the slightest. It was as if I’d known he couldn’t possibly keep away. I wondered briefly how he’d known the time of the wedding. Had he waited there all day? He wore a light grey suit and was carrying a camera case. He smiled to me and lifted his hand as if to wave to us, then changed his mind and lowered his hand down again. As we walked down the steps, followed by the wedding guests, my father met us half way down. He was standing two steps below us, squinting against the sun.
‘I brought you a wedding gift. It’s just money but I thought you might find a hole for it.’ He gave me a boyish grin and moved towards me. He was holding a white envelope in his outstretched hand. I looked at his hand.
My father took another step towards us, turned to my husband and said in English, ‘For you.’
The Englishman took the envelope, ‘Thank you very much.’ He shook hands with my father. He nodded to the Englishman and turned his eyes to me again. I loosened myself from the Englishman’s grip and took a step closer to my father. We were now at the same level on the steps of the Cathedral. He put his arms around me and squeezed hard. ‘Congratulations,’ he said. His voice was dry and low; I could hardly hear him.  I felt something fall onto my shoulders and realised it was a combination of rice and confetti. The noise from the crowd behind us grew stronger. I smiled, wiped a tear away from my eye and slipped my hand through the Englishman’s arm. When I turned back to my father again, he was gone.

10 comments:

Jen Archer said...

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Wildernesschic said...

Loved this Helena
I had goosebumps when I read about your father, and a tear, as you know anything to do with fathers has this effect on me .. a lovely post and you managed to keep your secret. xx

Rose said...

I can't believe we are at the final part. I have loved reading your story. I agree with Helena I found the bit about your Father really affecting. You look beautiful and it's obviously a love story that has kept running after the wedding. Thank- you for sharing with us

JulieB said...

Thank you so, so much for sharing your story with us. I have really enjoyed the ups and downs - the tears, and the laughter. So beautifully written. x

Sarah said...

This is beautiful.Thank you. I am going to have to find some time to settle down and read all the instalments! Thank you so much for leaving such a lovely comment on my blog and for following me. Sarah x

Happy Frog and I said...

Truly beautiful, I'm very touched by this post.

Susan Champlin said...

I want to congratulate you on your wedding—even if it was a few years ago now! A truly romantic story, and one in which the happily-ever-after is as compelling as the courtship and marriage. Congratulations on the wedding, the marriage, the children, and of course your current exciting life-change to London. So happy for you.

Helena Halme said...

I am so touched by your flattering comments.

In a way, though, I'm glad I've finished this tale so that I can concentrate on the new story (novel progress above).

After the Big Move, obviously....

Thank you for your support xx

PS. Jen, I'm not planning to monetise this blog, due mainly to personal reasons. Thank you very much for considering me though.

Amy said...

I have really enjoyed reading this, well done you and here's to new and exciting projects for you in the future!

Corte Inglesa said...

Oh no, this isn't the final part, is it? I've just finished reading. Read the whole story over a couple of days and really really loved it. Such a romantic story, and you write beautifully. Good luck with your novel - I will certainly be buying a copy if it's anything like this!